Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Couple of Analogies for the Trinity and the Incarnation, Part I

The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are central doctrines in Christianity.  Therefore, much effort has been spent trying to understand and articulate them accurately.  It has always been acknowledged that, of course, we cannot understand them fully or completely comprehend them.  If the very table in front of me is beyond my complete comprehension, how much more must the nature of God and how Christ became a man be beyond my complete comprehension!

And yet, people have rightly tried to get a substantial and accurate view of these doctrines.  Sometimes people have developed analogies to try to capture and articulate the essence of these ideas.  So we have Augustine's analogy of the the divisions of the soul.  We have later popular analogies such as the three forms of water, or the three parts of an egg, etc., etc.  Some of these analogies are more helpful than others.  Many of them, in my view, are more harmful than useful, because they convey more error than truth about the things they are trying to describe.  No analogy perfectly describes what it is an analogy for, because, obviously, if it did it would no longer be an analogy but just a description of the actual thing.  So all analogies fail at some point.  But there can be more or less helpful analogies.  An analogy is useful if it exhibits sufficient similarity to actually help to elucidate some truth about its object, while the dissimilarities are far enough in the background to not greatly or immediately distort the effect.  Analogies, while always involving a degree of risk (because no analogy is perfect), are on the whole very useful things, because they are so effective at helping to communicate a clearer view of many things.

In light of all this, I would like to offer here a couple of analogies, one relating to the Trinity and the other relating to the Incarnation.  My dissatisfaction with existing Trinitarian analogies has led me to want to develop one that is more effective and less error-ridden, because I think analogy can be very useful in elucidating such a difficult concept.  As the for the doctrine of the Incarnation, I'm not sure I've ever actually heard anyone attempt an analogy for this, so I have seen a need for one to be attempted.  Like all analogies, the ones offered below are not perfect, but hopefully they will be helpful.


Here is a basic statement articulating the doctrine of the Trinity from the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter II, Section III:

In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding: the Son is eternally begotten of the Father: the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

A couple of articles I often refer to when trying to help people understand the Trinity are "What is the Doctrine of the Trinity?" by Matt Perman, which I think is a nice, brief, helpful discussion of it, and, when I want a more philosophical account, the "Unpublished Essay on the Trinity" by Jonathan Edwards.  Edwards's article is, in my opinion, the most substantial and effective attempt to examine the doctrine of the Trinity philosophically I have yet come across.  I don't agree necessarily with every aspect of what he says, but I find it very useful overall.  I am going to use Edwards's article (quotations are from the plain text version at CCEL) to help me articulate the philosophical dimensions of the doctrine as I set forth my analogy.  If you want to skip the first quotation from Edwards (which is a bit dense), feel free to do so.  I don't think that will impair your grasp of my analogy.

Here is Edwards on the relationship between the Father and the Son:

It is common when speaking of the Divine happiness to say that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of Himself, in perfectly beholding and infinitely loving, and rejoicing in, His own essence and perfection, and accordingly it must be supposed that God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of Himself, as it were an exact image and representation of Himself ever before Him and in actual view, and from hence arises a most pure and perfect act or energy in the Godhead, which is the Divine love, complacence and joy. The knowledge or view which God has of Himself must necessarily be conceived to be something distinct from His mere direct existence. There must be something that answers to our reflection. The reflection as we reflect on our own minds carries something of imperfection in it. However, if God beholds Himself so as thence to have delight and joy in Himself He must become his own object. There must be a duplicity. There is God and the idea of God, if it be proper to call a conception of that that is purely spiritual an idea.
If a man could have an absolutely perfect idea of all that passed in his mind, all the series of ideas and exercises in every respect perfect as to order, degree, circumstance and for any particular space of time past, suppose the last hour, he would really to all intents and purpose be over again what he was that last hour. And if it were possible for a man by reflection perfectly to contemplate all that is in his own mind in an hour, as it is and at the same time that it is there in its first and direct existence; if a man, that is, had a perfect reflex or contemplative idea of every thought at the same moment or moments that that thought was and of every exercise at and during the same time that that exercise was, and so through a whole hour, a man would really be two during that time, he would be indeed double, he would be twice at once. The idea he has of himself would be himself again. 
Note, by having a reflex or contemplative idea of what passes in our own minds I don't mean consciousness only. There is a great difference between a man's having a view of himself, reflex or contemplative idea of himself so as to delight in his own beauty or excellency, and a mere direct consciousness. Or if we mean by consciousness of what is in our own minds anything besides the mere simple existence in our minds of what is there, it is nothing but a power by reflection to view or contemplate what passes. 
Therefore as God with perfect clearness, fullness and strength, understands Himself, views His own essence (in which there is no distinction of substance and act but which is wholly substance and wholly act), that idea which God hath of Himself is absolutely Himself. This representation of the Divine nature and essence is the Divine nature and essence again: so that by God's thinking of the Deity must certainly be generated. Hereby there is another person begotten, there is another Infinite Eternal Almighty and most holy and the same God, the very same Divine nature. 
And this Person is the second person in the Trinity, the Only Begotten and dearly Beloved Son of God; He is the eternal, necessary, perfect, substantial and personal idea which God hath of Himself; and that it is so seems to me to be abundantly confirmed by the Word of God.

Edwards then goes on to provide a Scriptural foundation for his philosophical analysis.

So what we have in the Trinity is a single person, God the Father, who perceives a perfect image of himself, God the Son.  Since the image is perfect and exact, with nothing lacking, the image has exactly the same essence as the one whose image he is.  So by viewing his own essence, God the Father begets another instantiation of his own divine essence--God the Son.  (We'll get to the Holy Spirit shortly.)

So here's Part I of my analogy:

Put on your science-fiction glasses for a moment and imagine that there exists a Robotic Artificial Intelligence (RAI).  That is, there is a robot with a computer mind and the computer is so sophisticated it has become an intelligence.  (You can think of it as alive or not as you like--after all, computers, without being alive, can do many intelligent things, such as play chess.  It doesn't matter, since I am not claiming that any of this can really happen, of course.  It is just an imaginary scenario to use as my analogy.  It is difficult to find a good analogy for the Trinity among the things of daily life, because really nothing in this world is sufficiently like the Trinity to make a good analogy.  Hence the resort to a science-fiction-ish scenario.) 
Now, this RAI (we'll call him Robot 1) "decides" that "he" "wants" (you can take the terms metaphorically or literally) to be able to interact with himself the way he interacts with other beings.  So he builds another robot body with another computer inside.  Then he establishes a wireless connection between the two computers and transmits his own mind into the new computer.  His original mind now functions kind of like an internet server which hosts a website, but then sends out that website into other computers, so that there can be multiple instantiations of the same website as different computers access it.  (I hope I'm not botching this up too much--I'm not a great computer expert.) 
So Robot 1 has now produced (shall we use the term "begotten"?) a new instantiation of his own essence, existing in the newly created RAI (whom we'll call, not surprisingly, Robot 2).  Robot 2 is exactly like Robot 1, since they are literally sharing the same computer "mind."  The only difference is that Robot 1 is the "server" in which the mind originally resides and Robot 2 is a receiver who gets all he has from Robot 1.  Robot 2 is like the child of Robot 1, except that unlike with the production of human children the "child" shares exactly the same essence as the "parent."  Robot 1 and Robot 2 can interact with each other as two distinct "persons," since they are two distinct instantiations of the same computer-essence, but they are one in "being" for the same reason.

OK, now let's take this one step further (Part II):

A scientist (we'll call him Dr. Zinzemborff, or Dr. Z for short) who works in the laboratory in which Robot 1 and Robot 2 live is fascinated by their relationship.  He wants to access the wireless connection that connects Robot 1 to Robot 2 and allows Robot 2 to function.  So he builds a new robotic body with a new computer brain designed to pick up on the wireless signal and instantiate it in its own system.  When it is completed, he turns it on, and it immediately comes to "life" as it picks up the signal. 
"Are you online?" Dr. Z asks? 
"Yes I am," the new RAI replies. 
"What are you experiencing?" 
"I find that I have become another instantiation of the computer mind of Robot 1, distinct from the other two instantiations (Robot 1 and Robot 2).  Since the wireless connection between Robot 1 and Robot 2 conveys completely the entire computer-essence of Robot 1, by tapping into that transmission I have become another complete instantiation of the same essence.  I have the same thoughts as both Robot 1 and Robot 2, except that in identity I am not the same as either of them.  I am the instantiation of the very connection between the two of them." 
"Well then, we'll call you Robot 3," says Dr. Z.

Perhaps you have picked up by this point that "Robot 3" represents the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity.  Here is how Jonathan Edwards describes the Holy Spirit and his relationship with the Father and the Son:

The Godhead being thus begotten by God's loving an idea of Himself and shewing forth in a distinct subsistence or person in that idea, there proceeds a most pure act, and an infinitely holy and sacred energy arises between the Father and Son in mutually loving and delighting in each other, for their love and joy is mutual, (Prov. 8:30) "I was daily His delight rejoicing always before Him." This is the eternal and most perfect and essential act of the Divine nature, wherein the Godhead acts to an infinite degree and in the most perfect manner possible. The Deity becomes all act, the Divine essence itself flows out and is as it were breathed forth in love and joy. So that the Godhead therein stands forth in yet another manner of subsistence, and there proceeds the third Person in the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, viz., the Deity in act, for there is no other act but the act of the will.

The Holy Spirit is God's essence, as it were, "breathed forth."  By his Spirit, the Father begets the Son, and by the Spirit the Son and the Father are connected.  And it is by the Holy Spirit, not surprisingly, that we come to share in the divine life and are made children of God when we are regenerated in salvation.  It is by the Spirit that the Word of God is breathed forth from God, either directly and supremely (such as in the Incarnation of Christ) or finitely and partially (such as when the Word of God spoke through the prophets).

Here is how Edwards sums up his articulation of the Trinity:

And this I suppose to be that blessed Trinity that we read of in the Holy Scriptures. The Father is the Deity subsisting in the prime, un-originated and most absolute manner, or the Deity in its direct existence. The Son is the Deity generated by God's understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the Deity subsisting in act, or the Divine essence flowing out and breathed forth in God's Infinite love to and delight in Himself. And I believe the whole Divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the Divine idea and Divine love, and that each of them are properly distinct Persons.

I highly recommend that you go and read the rest of Edwards's article.  He provides copious Scriptural evidence for his account of the Trinitarian relationships and relates very well his philosophical language with the language of Scripture.  He also shows how his philosophical perspective sheds light on the meaning of certain key elements of the orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.  I would reproduce all of that here, but then I would simply be reproducing his entire article.

I would like to make one more observation before I conclude, and it has to do with that notoriously difficult Trinitarian subject--the famous Filioque.  I think the light shed on the Trinity by Edwards's philosophical account and hopefully to some degree by the above analogy also sheds light on this debate.  (I'm not going to explain what this debate is about here.  If you want to read about it, one place to start is here.)  Edwards gets close to discussing this issue explicitly here:

I shall only now briefly observe that many things that have been wont to be said by orthodox divines about the Trinity are hereby illustrated. Hereby we see how the Father is the fountain of the Godhead, and why when He is spoken of in Scripture He is so often, without any addition or distinction, called God, which has led some to think that He only was truly and properly God. Hereby we may see why in the economy of the Persons of the Trinity the Father should sustain the dignity of the Deity, that the Father should have it as His office to uphold and maintain the rights of the Godhead and should be God not only by essence, but as it were, by His economical office.

In our analogy, Robot 1 is the original RAI.  The other two RAIs are derived from him.  They share the same essence, but their instantiations of that essence are derived from his.  The reason the Eastern church has historically been opposed to the Filioque is that they have wanted to avoid having two ultimate origins of the Holy Spirit or diminish the role of the Father as the sole original source of the Godhead.  We can see that these concerns are satisfied in our analogy.  Robot 1 is the sole source of the computer-mind that is shared by all three.  He is the original instantiation.  Robot 3 (who is analogous to the Holy Spirit) is the instantiation of the wireless transmission which has its ultimate origin in Robot 1.  Similarly, the Father is the sole source of the Godhead and thus the Spirit's only ultimate source.  The West, on the other hand, has been motivated to insert and to keep the Filioque out of a concern to preserve the equality of the Son and sometimes to emphasize the fact that the Spirit proceeds out of the relationship between the two.  In our analogy, the wireless transmission that emanates originally from Robot 1 is also the conduit through which Robot 1 relates to Robot 2 and through which Robot 2 communicates with Robot 1, so Robot 3 is an instantiation not simply of something coming from Robot 1 but also of the connection between the two.  Similarly, the Spirit originates ultimately only from the Father, but because he is also the conduit of connection between the Father and the Son, he is a manifestation of both the Father and the Son and the relationship between them.  So we have preserved here, embedded in our analogy, the Father as the sole ultimate fountain of the Godhead, and also the equality of the Son and Spirit with the Father and the Spirit as manifesting the Son as well as the Father.  We could express this by saying simply that the Spirit "proceeds from the Father" (emphasizing that the Father is the only ultimate source of the Godhead) as well as by saying that the Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son" (emphasizing that the Spirit emanates from the relationship between the Father and the Son and is thus an expression of the Son as well as of the Father).  Either way would be fundamentally orthodox.  And these are the lines along which the East and the West have generally worked to reconcile their different articulations.  My hope in this regard is that my analogy might help make it easier for some people to see what the debate is actually about and how there can be a reconciliation (at least on the pure doctrinal issues--there are other issues involved in this debate as well, such as the concern over the West changing the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed).

Continued in Part II.

ADDENDUM 7/1/16:  It occurred to me later that I could simplify my analogy for the Trinity here quite a bit if I left out the robots and just focused on the internet-type analogy included in it.  The Father is the server where the website originally resides.  The Son is the computer which receives the website from the server and thus constitutes a second instantiation of the same website-essence.  The Spirit is the data stream sent from the server which connects the two computers and which thus constitutes a third instantiation of the same website-essence.

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